Altopascio, a town that has been well-known by any pilgrim who travels along the Via Francigena for centuries, is a small town that, curiously, happens to be famous for its bread. It’s actually renowned as the city of bread as it’s been able to maintain its traditional cereal production over the centuries.
Altopascio is now an important municipality in the Lucca Area. Its unique position as the point at which many roads converge made it particularly famous in the Middle Ages, still remaining a defining characteristic of the town.
The historic centre is home to notable artistic works like the church dedicated to San Jacopo, built in 1100, during the opulent period of the Ordine degli Ospitalieri.
Beside the church, the impressive bell-tower of Romanesque-Lucca origin completed in 1280, still retains its medieval semblance of a fortress.
The Piazza degli Ospitalieri is also well worth a visit, being the most fascinating part of the historic centre with its octagonal-shaped well.
Next to the church is the “Altopascio Spedale” (hospice), a welfare institution run by the Ordine Ospedaliero of the Friars of San Jacopo. Wrapped in their distinctive black cloaks, from the second half of the 11th century they were known as the Knights of the Tau; the Order’s symbol resembled the pilgrim’s wooden staff to represent their role of taking care of the wayfarers and pilgrims who were crossing the Via Francigena, and in doing so transformed their welcoming hospitality into a specialized medical shelter.
The novelty of this kind of assistance lay precisely in the healthcare model of these treatments, carried out thanks to the help of competent staff such as lay doctors and surgeons.
Continuing into the city centre, you can visit the historical collection of Altopascio which is kept inside the Loggiato Mediceo, built during the years 1472-75. The loggia, which stands just in front of the Pellegrinaio, constitutes the architectural emergency exit of Piazza Garibaldi, formerly the market square. The interesting collection documents the history of Altopascio and its surroundings.
The Sibolla Lake Nature Reserve was founded to protect this small but significant wetland, covering around 60 hectares of Altopascio and represents, from a floristic point of view, one of the most important biotope marshes in all of Tuscany. The beautifully clean lake gives a good idea of how the nearby Paduli di Fucecchio and Bientina must have looked before the 19th century reclamations.
Altopascio’s bread is one of the most historically traditional aspects of the town, requiring no yeast. For its leavening, a special kind of pastry called “la sconcia” is used and, as is typical of the Tuscan region, is strictly salt-free. The bread is made from the processing of soft wheat flour (type 0), natural yeast and water, one of the secrets of its unique flavor.